US Bicycle Route System May Become a 50,000 Mile Interstate Reality


“People across America who value bicycling should have a voice when it comes to transportation planning. This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.”

When U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood made this announcement at the National Bike Summit last March, he became an instant superstar with bicycling advocates who work hard to create and maintain cycling routes as part of their local, state, and regional transportation networks.

In July, Secretary LaHood took it a step further -- embracing the creation of a U.S. Bicycle Route System (USBRS), a project that will connect many of the existing (and envisioned) bicycle routes around the country into an official, national network of cycling routes, linked coast-to-coast across state lines.

LaHood wrote, “The U.S. Bicycle Route System is not just a bunch of bike paths; we're talking about a transportation system. It will facilitate travel between communities and to historic and cultural landmarks. It will give people living in more rural areas a way to travel into a nearby urban area by bicycle. Urban and suburban residents will have better access to rural recreation areas. And -- like our interstate highway system -- it will facilitate long-distance travel by bicycle, whether across one’s state or across the country.”

If implemented as planned, the U.S. Bicycle Route System will become the largest official cycling network on the planet, encompassing more than 50,000 miles of routes. These routes will be officially recognized by state and local Departments of Transportation (DOTs), and in some cases, marked with signs. Because the system will link existing infrastructure whenever possible -- including roads, bike paths, and trails -- building the network will be cost-effective.

Local benefits

Twenty-two states are now actively working on U.S. Bicycle Routes. In some states, cycling advocates have taken the lead, developing the route and coordinating minimally with their state DOT until ready to apply for designation. In others, the state DOT and its bicycle/pedestrian coordinator are trailblazing, collaborating with volunteers and cycling and trail organizations.

“I am seeing tremendous excitement from the cycling community and the local communities that these routes will touch,” said Ginny Sullivan, special projects director for Adventure Cycling Association and lead staff on the USBRS.

One reason communities are excited to be part of the national system is the economic boost it may bring to local economies. In Michigan, for example, towns along proposed USBR 20 have actively lobbied for their communities to be included on the new route.

“We’ve asked each city, village, and county that owns any piece of USBR 20 to pass a formal resolution of support for the project,” said Scott Anderson, a volunteer for Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance and a leader on USBR 20. “Every resolution I've seen has specifically mentioned economic development.”

Many states that already boast significant biking infrastructure have seen the benefits of bicycle tourism. North Carolina’s estimated annual impact from bicycle facilities in its northern Outer Banks region is $60 million and 1,407 jobs. A Wisconsin study [pdf] estimates that bicycling contributes $1.5 billion to the state annually -- and $530 million comes from bicycle travel. According to the Great Allegheny Passage Economic Impact Study [pdf], multi-day cycle tourists spend an average of $98 per day in businesses along the trail. La Route Verte in Quebec spans 2,400 miles and generates $160 million annually in economic returns.

National biking networks in Europe demonstrate that these systems not only dramatically boost economic activity, but also the number of trips taken by cycle instead of car. For example, the United Kingdom’s National Cycle Network -- expanding from 4,200 miles in 2000 to more than 12,000 miles today -- has seen total yearly trips on the network grow from 85 million to 386 million. Seventy-five percent of the UK population now lives within 2 miles of the network.

A nationwide collaboration

Implementing 50,000 miles of cycling routes is a gargantuan undertaking. AOL Travel recently named the USBRS one of “the most ambitious transportation projects of the 21st century.”

Work to create the U.S. Bicycle Route System first began in the late 1970s. Two U.S. Bicycle Routes were completed, both in 1982: U.S. Bike Route 1 in Virginia and North Carolina, and U.S. Bike Route 76 in Virginia, Kentucky, and Illinois. Then, momentum stopped.

In 2003, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) re-started the project and formed the Task Force on U.S. Bicycle Routes, comprised of transportation agency staff (at the federal and state levels) and staff from bicycling organizations, including Adventure Cycling Association, Mississippi River Trail, Inc., and East Coast Greenway Alliance.

In October 2008, AASHTO* adopted a visionary National Corridor Plan map [pdf] -- a blueprint to guide implementation of the 50,000-mile network.

Built from a massive inventory of existing U.S. routes and trails, the National Corridor Plan depicts 50-mile-wide “corridors” -- which include multiple options for routing -- to help guide states as they envision where to put routes and how best to match them across state lines. States can propose changes to the plan in order to align their routes with important historical, environmental, and cultural destinations that the Task Force may have overlooked.

After a route is chosen, the state DOT submits an application to AASHTO for its official designation as a U.S. Bicycle Route.

A win for America

The U.S. Bicycle Route System will connect communities across the nation. It will make important cultural and scenic destinations accessible by bicycle. It will bring dollars back to our communities, help fight obesity, and make it easier for Americans to travel without cars. It will immerse us in our local, living landscapes, and recalibrate our daily lives and travel experiences to a more mindful, human, sustainable pace.

Last May, during a fundraiser for the USBRS, one donor commented, “This could really be the start of something great for the U.S.” Or as Secretary LaHood said, regarding the completion of the USBRS, “It’s a win for states, a win for local communities, and a win for America.”

Best of all, it’s happening right now, in all parts of the country.

*AASHTO is a national nonprofit to which all state DOTs belong. AASHTO provides guidance to transportation agencies and is in charge of numbering interstate routes, both our highway system and bicycle route system.

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